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Catching up with the new CEO of Signify UK & Ireland

Sustainable Lighting

Signify UK & Ireland recently appointed Nico van der Merwe as CEO, a name many Electrical Review readers will be familiar with, having previously worked for Schneider Electric. 

Electrical Review caught up with Nico to see how he’s getting on with the new job, as well as his vision for the future of Signify UK & Ireland and the wider lighting industry. 

Having previously worked at Schneider Electric, what motivated you to take up the position at Signify UK & Ireland, and what are your main goals for the company in the coming years?

Signify is a company with a rich heritage, a powerful product portfolio, a talented team, and a strong leadership position in sustainability. I am sure we are well positioned to further grow the business and industry while continuing to make a positive impact on society and the environment through our innovations.

The UK and Ireland have exciting opportunities in the market for us and our customers and that is what I want to make possible for us in the new role. This objective will also ultimately help drive us closer to the Signify’s five frontier strategy for growth where we focus on being more customer centric, enable differentiated offers, growth for sustainability, drive digitalisation and be a great place to work.

You mention sustainability as being at the heart of everything that Signify does, and lighting can naturally make a huge contribution to making the world more sustainable. But could you tell us more about the work Signify is doing to decarbonise itself and is this something you’re personally passionate about? 

Sustainability is in our DNA. At Signify, we believe that by changing how we create and use light, we can improve lives and positively impact the planet. So, we have identified five strategic areas where we will grow our business while furthering our contribution to a better and more sustainable world. These growth areas are defined based on the business environment and challenges facing society and are tied to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Let me take you back to 2015 when Signify committed to a goal of becoming carbon neutral and converting to the use of 100% renewable electricity in all our operations. With a global manufacturing footprint, supply chain, nearly 40,000 people, and a global presence, those commitments felt like a big step at the time. We created a bold plan, with over 200 emission reduction initiatives worldwide, and were able to become carbon neutral in our operations in 2020.

We then wanted to make our impact even bigger. So we have embarked on a new five-year journey out to 2025, focusing on doubling our positive impact on the environment and society under the Brighter Lives, Better World 2025 sustainability programme, going beyond carbon neutrality. The programme uses the SDGs as its strategic compass and we report our contribution to six SDGs: Good health and wellbeing (#3); Affordable and clean energy (#7); Decent work and economic growth (#8); Sustainable cities and communities (#11); Responsible consumption and production (#12); and Climate Action (#13). We have chosen the SDGs where Signify can have the most impact through the products and services we offer and the actions we undertake ourselves. 

Some of our aims and progress so far:

  • Double the pace of the Paris Agreement: As part of our commitment to climate action (SDG13), we will go beyond carbon neutrality and reduce carbon emissions over our entire value chain. By 2025, we will achieve the 2031 target set out for companies in the Paris agreement to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C over pre-industrial times. We will do so by increasing the energy efficiency of our portfolio, which will reduce emissions of our customers, and by driving carbon reductions at our suppliers. We also call upon the world to accelerate the adoption of affordable and clean energy (SDG7).
  • Double our Circular revenues: Making our economy more circular has become more important than ever. As Signify, we are committed to responsible consumption and production (SDG12) with products that can be reprinted, refurbished, reused or recycled. This will help us to achieve our goal of doubling our revenues from circular products, systems and services to 32% by the end of 2025. To date, we have achieved 29% versus a baseline of 16% and are already nearly at our 2025 target.
  • Double our revenues for brighter lives, through innovations that benefit society: We are committed to supporting good health and wellbeing (SDG3) and sustainable cities and communities (SDG11). We aim to double the percentage of our revenues for brighter lives, which benefit society, to 32% by the end of 2025. This includes revenues from lighting innovations which increase Food Availability, Safety & Security and Health & Wellbeing. To date, these two SDGs contribute to the Brighter Lives revenue by 27% and are on track to meet the target for 2025.

And what about the technology that Signify offers, such as LEDs, how can that contribute to wider decarbonisation outside of your own operations? I note the recent Ultra Efficient line from Signify that promises greater energy savings than ever before. 

Lighting is one of the single biggest energy expenses that businesses face. It also comes as a quick, non-capital/effort intensive fix. The drive to create more efficient lighting is also born of an urgency to respond to climate change. 

LED and connected lighting offer one of the simplest – and most overlooked – paths to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to connected LEDs in buildings can quickly reduce the built environment’s lighting-related energy consumption and with additional controls this can save up to 80%. These controls opportunities and IoT devices like motion sensors are essential if full energy and emissions savings are to be realised. 

Then there is the sustainability of the lights themselves. By bringing lighting together with data and the IoT, you can create spaces that adapt to specific needs, making them more efficient, connected, and sustainable. This can be applied to any area-of a building, a parking lot, a sports arena or even a city. With controls one can optimise energy use, manage multiple sites, streamline citizen services and radically reduce lighting-related energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Another important concept of sustainability in lighting is that it can have a hugely positive impact on circularity. Sold in combination with a service agreement, users can benefit from guaranteed lighting performance regarding energy, light level, and uptime. Owning the reuse, refurbishing or recycling loop can ensure any business can get maximum value from the lighting system and contribute to corporate sustainability ambitions. With circular lighting in businesses, cities, and homes, any country can achieve game-changing electricity savings. 

Lastly, there is the rapid growth of 3D printing everywhere and lightning is no different. The lighting industry is accelerating the transition from a linear to a circular economy and technologies like 3D printing luminaires offer huge benefits to customers. 

3D printed luminaires are designed to meet specific needs and uses for a variety of applications/ sectors. Whether these needs are performance improvements (higher efficacies in lumen per watt (lm/W) or better light quality), a diverse look and feel (different colour, texture, or shaped housing), or a system upgrade, the modular concept facilitates these needs. Instead of replacing the whole luminaire, modules can be exchanged or added, thus preserving value, and avoiding waste – making this method all about CO2 reduction and waste reduction.

For example, our 3D printed luminaires are designed for a circular economy and a lower carbon footprint. They are printed with 100% recyclable polycarbonate and are fully reused at the end of their lifetime, avoiding material waste. Additionally, our Light-as-a-Service options – where customers pay only for the light they use while we manage, reuse, and recycle luminaires – promote sustainability along the entire lighting lifecycle. And our Circular Lighting approach reduces maintenance costs by 60% with zero waste to landfill.

Given the important role that lighting plays, and the fact it’s getting ever more efficient, do you think the UK Government needs to do more to encourage the uptake of efficient LEDs? I know around the time of the Green Homes Grant, many within the industry were disappointed by its lack of inclusion, and there hasn’t been any further incentives since…

Decarbonising the UK’s built environment is a significant challenge that also comes with major opportunities – accelerating the adoption of energy-efficient solutions, products, and job creation. The Government set out the Green Homes Grant – which was scrapped and also scaled down the fund for decarbonisation. Not too long ago, the Government announced the Heat and Buildings Strategy, which is a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough and is not designed for quick or big wins.

The Government needs to encourage energy-efficient retrofits in the built environment and better plan new infrastructure development with a focus on technologies that can expedite reduction of carbon emissions. LED lighting is one of the quickest renovations that dramatically cuts carbon – it does not require large capital investments and has a short payback time. It is a major counterbalance to the disadvantages of locking in carbon consequential in new developments by refreshing and repurposing existing building stock. It can also reduce electricity demand in existing buildings to the point that, for example, the renovation of Gas Boilers to Heat Pumps will not require new electricity supply infrastructure thanks to the reduced energy demand of the new lighting system. 

To highlight just how big of an impact, a complete switching to low carbon smart LED lighting can remove emissions equivalent to one coal power plant, or 636,000 cars, or nearly half a million (496K) households for the UK.

Given the state of the UK economy over recent months and even years since the beginning of the pandemic, Brexit and the supply chain crisis, how is Signify navigating these waters?

The world endured a third year of exceptionally tough conditions in 2022. Geopolitical crises, Covid-19, persistent supply chain issues and surging energy costs conspired to create an increasingly volatile and unpredictable external environment that profoundly tested our agility and resilience. The difficult conditions also testified to the relevance of Signify’s extensive portfolio of sustainable and connected lighting solutions.

Our long history of lighting innovation is a source of great pride within Signify. It is the essence of what we do and how we build for the future. Last year, globally we invested 3.9% of our sales in R&D, structured within a three horizon investment schedule – investing in what is stable, what is growing, and what will grow tomorrow – all to answer the needs of an ever evolving industry.

We continue to innovate in core LED lighting products that meet the world’s immediate need to reduce energy consumption. 

To cite some examples: we have expanded our Ultra Efficient LED portfolio and extended it into the professional sector, offering even greater savings to energy-conscious customers. In luminaires, embracing 3D printing is making supply chain, procurement, manufacturing, and development more sustainable and more efficient. Our investment in the Internet of Things is bearing fruit, with us now having surpassed 100 million IoT connected devices.

So, it’s safe to say, no matter the challenges the previous year saw, a new year also brings a renewed sense of optimism and fresh focus.

Finally, what advice do you have for young people who are interested in pursuing a career in both the lighting industry, as well as the wider electrical industry, and how can they prepare themselves for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead?

I would say that this is a very exciting space – one full of rewarding challenges and learning. If you are keen to explore a career in the field – you will always find a great opportunity and the time is always right!

There is no better place to build a career than with a company that places sustainability at the centre of their ethos.

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